Mountaintop: A closer look at Telekom Baskets Bonn
BONN (Germany) - "I think the ultimate or the mountaintop in team sports is when you're able to express yourself within the constraints of the system," says Tuomas Iisalo.
This is how the Telekom Baskets Bonn head coach describes the condition of absolute peak performance in team sports, when an athlete is able to act within a team system without thinking but still completely in-sync with their teammates.
Iisalo's Telekom Baskets Bonn team may not be at the mountaintop (yet) in the Basketball Champions League but, at times this season, they have looked like a team traversing the ridge with the peak in sight.
A lot of people think that we play a very free style of basketball because it looks like there's not a lot of thinking involved, but when you do the basics really well, it often just looks like that - Tuomas Iisalo
Their Wednesday night win over Rytas Vilnius made it nine wins on the bounce and printed them the second ticket to the Quarter-Finals. The first ticket was claimed by Lenovo Tenerife. We have grown accustomed to seeing the champs round into ruthless form at this time of year, but Telekom Baskets Bonn not so much.
In fact, since the club's inception in 1992, this is only the fifth time they have reached this stage of a continental competition, with the last time being the FIBA EuroChallenge in 2013. The BCL, however, is a very different beast from the EuroChallenge. This is only the second time the club has made it out of the Regular Season and it's going to be their very first trip to the BCL Quarter-Finals.
Rytas Vilnius went for the upset, but @TelekomBaskets said: "Nein!" - as in nine straight wins for the 🇩🇪 squad in the #BasketballCL! They are through to the Quarter-Finals! 👏👏— Basketball Champions League (@BasketballCL) March 8, 2023
According to Iisalo, the way things look when a team is at the mountaintop tells a very different story from the journey to ascend that mountain. "I think a lot of people think that we play a very free style of basketball because it looks like there's not a lot of thinking involved, but when you do the basics really well, it often just looks like that," he said.
In reality, the route is more about a repetitive focus on getting the basics locked in. "If you come to our practice or ask our players, they will say it's the most details that we've ever had in our basketball lives, and it takes a tremendous amount of effort and focus. People don't understand how difficult that is to do on a daily basis," Iisalo explained.
If we look at the clip below from the game against Rytas, we can see exactly what Iisalo is describing:
- On first look, you could be forgiven for seeing Bonn pull the rebound, transition up the floor quickly and play freely into the halfcourt. What you actually see is a team within a very clear structure.
- Watch #7, Sebastian Herrera gives up the ball when the first break isn't on and instantly fills the opposite corner to give them the spacing for their secondary break.
- Then, watch the ball find its way to #21, Leon Kratzer, and as soon as he turns to the second side of the floor Bonn are reacting without thinking and getting into the next action of the offense.
- Also, note the second screen that Kratzer sets on his own man after the pick-and-roll and specifically the way that Kratzer and Herrera read the defense, reacting quickly and without needing to think.
- The speed that Bonn flow into the system and make the read is not only what drew the foul in this play but also where you find that structure within the freedom.
A hawk - a bird of prey of the family Accipitridae 🐦— Basketball Champions League (@BasketballCL) March 8, 2023
A Hawkins - a bird of prey of the family #Heartberg 💗@TeamTae23 gets 20pts in 20min in his comeback game in @TelekomBaskets' jersey! #BasketballCL pic.twitter.com/AdPkxhNZwb
When we consider Iisalo's journey to reach this point in his coaching career, it becomes apparent that he has always had an obsessive focus on the details, even as a player.
This trait is also shared by his brother Joonas, who is now a head coach with Heidelberg in the German BBL, making them a unique pair of siblings coaching in one of the top European basketball leagues at the same time.
"It started back in '93 when we got VHS cassettes from our grandparents and sent them via bus to our hometown because that was the only way you could see them," Tuomas Iisalo recalled.
"We studied the game a lot in order to improve as players ourselves. We watched Reggie Miller curling off 'Floppy' actions, Allan Houston's shooting technique, Scottie Pippen's on-ball defense. We had this type of background where we were completely crazy, but we also took a somewhat, let's say, analytical approach," he said.
It's safe to say that in the late nineties, studying the NBA in this way wasn't how the average kid from Finland was consuming the NBA. The Iisalo brothers already had something different about them.
🎙One word about Rytas Vilnius? 𝐆𝐎𝐎𝐃!— Basketball Champions League (@BasketballCL) March 8, 2023
🙌 Nothing but respect from Coach Iisalo for his opponent of the day.
📺 Tune in for our #BasketballCL #GameOfTheWeek as @TelekomBaskets take on @RytasVilnius 🍿 pic.twitter.com/oe0ydzuJy8
That 'craziness' for the details and analytical mindset for the game was particularly suited to developing in the Finnish system. According to Iisalo, not least because of his access to a fortuitous blend of mentors.
"I was part of that as part of the men's national team and there were a lot of good coaches also going through Finland. I had a chance to play for several good coaches, Gordon Herbert, who's the German national team coach, Jukka Toijala, the Estonian national team head coach, Henrik Dettmann, the Finnish national team head coach, and then I had somebody as more of a mentor in Harri Mannonen, who I thought was always 15 to 20 years ahead of his time," Iisalo explained.
Mannonen himself is a coach known for being unafraid to think differently and that's clearly something that made an impact on the Iisalo brothers. "He really gave both Joonas and me this idea that the way we were doing it didn't have to be a hobby. It's something Harri always said. 'It's not about how seriously you take basketball. It's how much you invest time in it.'" Iisalo said.
A coach can spend every hour of the day obsessing over the details and attempting to construct the best system possible for the players on the roster but ultimately it's the players that step on the floor and need to execute, or as Iisalo puts it, "they're the ones doing all the heavy lifting".
This Bonn squad is full of great examples of players excelling within their roles. T.J. Shorts naturally demands the most attention with his MVP-caliber season and before his injury, Jeremy Morgan was averaging 12 points and 3.6 rebounds with some of the most efficient shooting splits in the league.
Finn Delany's versatility at the Power Forward has made his transition to the European game look as seamless as his fit within the system itself. Tyson Ward and Collin Malcolm have caught the eye all season in the Forward spots and as we saw in the first clip Leon Kratzer seems to be growing by the game as his roll becomes more and more like a second nature.
In truth, although this squad does have individuals putting together headline seasons on a personal level, it's still very much that the total is more than the sum of its parts. As we saw with Karsten Tadda dropping 14 points in the first game against Rytas, or Herrera's 14 points at home against Bahcesehir College, there are players throughout this roster that have been stepping up when the team needs it.
"I know people say that we have a distinct playing style, but that's our identity. We're going to out-compete you, we're going to beat you with team reactions, and this is what our identity is, " Iisalo said.
"We want to make very quick decisions, and when it's like that it's very hard to guard because everything happens so fast."
If we want to see what the craziness for details and focus on team reactions actually leads to on the floor when Bonn play basketball, it doesn't take long before we start to get a feel. Watch the arrows on the screen in the clip below:
The first arrow is to show you that Rytas are switching the ball screens, and the second is to show you how quickly #70, Finn Delany reacts to the switch and calls for the ball in the post.
Next, watch #3, Tyson Ward reads that his defender has helped early on the mismatch caused by the switch. Ward's cut causes more defensive rotations on the weak side and the mistake that eventually breaks the defense as two defenders close out to #0, T.J. Shorts.
In this next clip, we see Finn Delany again giving us another great example of his versatility and also a detail that Bonn perform so well on a nightly basis.
Watch how he catches the ball on the move to give himself an extra step on his drive. If he gets this wrong it's an easy travel call for the officials but Bonn rarely get the details wrong:
Speed or tempo is another key detail to the style of basketball that Bonn play. The ball needs to cross halfcourt at the 21-second mark and if that means that they don't need to find the point guard first in order to play their offense, then so be it.
"We have a certain structure for our early offense right here, which we generally start with the drag screen between one and five, but it can be really anybody who's bringing the ball up," said Iisalo.
Here we see Ward pull the rebound and go. He scans the floor but the moment there isn't an easy outlet pass, there is no hesitation or pause to allow the defense to settle.
Also, watch the detail of how quickly #6, Michael Kessens releases from the screen to avoid the offensive foul call and create problems in the defensive coverage.
In the half court Iisalo often refers to "Entries" as opposed to set play calls. You could think of it as using a different set of actions and positional alignment to enter the same system with very similar reactions to the defense regardless of the entry used.
One of the more common entries you will see Bonn use is their "Staggered" entry. They use staggered screens and a player cutting from one side of the court to the other and different options on how to enter the action from there.
In the clip below we see #9, Karsten Tadda makes an Iverson cut across the lane. In this case, Shorts doesn't make the pass but instead, Bonn use the space and separation created to get into a pick-and-roll.
One of the consistent themes in a lot of Bonn's offense is the spacing designed to leave the paint open. They have dynamic and attack-minded ball handlers that know exactly how to take advantage of any lapse in concentration from the defense.
Watch T.J. Shorts in the clip below as he shows us exactly what the benefit is of leaving the paint open. The clip unfolds very quickly but you can tell that Bonn are set up to use a staggered entry but Shorts sensed an opportunity even earlier and reacted.
If we were to pick one action in the halfcourt that defines Telekom Baskets Bonn's style of play, it would be the way they utilize "Iverson" cuts to enter their offense. Named after Allen Iverson, this type of cut involves a horizontal cut parallel to the free throw line to catch the ball, usually with the use of a screen or two to remove pesky defenders.
Unsurprisingly, Iisalo's relationship with this action was borne out of studying NBA game footage earlier in his career. "I think the author is Austin Kleon who wrote a book, 'Steal Like an Artist'." Iisalo said. "When I was starting as a head coach in the Finnish league one of the teams that I was watching a lot at the time was Dallas Mavericks and they had a similar lineup construction to the team I had at the time," he explained.
That Dallas roster in 2014 had Jason Kidd at the point guard position, Tyson Chandler as the center rolling to the rim, and of course Dirk Nowitzki as the stretch four. They would use the Iverson cut for Jason Kidd or sometimes Monta Ellis to enter their offense.
In this clip, we see Bonn's Iverson entry. You see #20, Jeremy Morgan making the Iverson cut and also Kartsen Tadda cutting the baseline to swap corners and confuse the defensive rotations when it comes to helping on the pick-and-roll. Imagine Jason Kidd where you see T.J. Shorts and Tyson Chandler rolling for the lob as we see from Leon Kratzer:
This next clip gives us another insight into the mountaintops that Iisalo references. We see Bonn using the exact Iverson entry in the clip we just watched but this time Manresa attempt to catch them off guard with a "Box and One" defense.
Look for the arrows on the screen to see where four Manresa defenders create the box-shaped zone defense that allows the last defender to chase Shorts everywhere he goes. Also, notice again the way that Finn Delany catches on the move to create that extra step:
We asked Iisalo about that specific clip and he made the point that his system doesn't run specific actions to attack defensive adjustments like zones, Instead, he wants to remove the thinking and trust the system to adapt to whatever the defense throws at them.
"What I like is that the defense is showing something that we've never seen, but there's zero cognitive load on the players, they are in complete action mode, which is what our team is about," Iisalo said.
Again, this is a mentality that Iisalo references from studying other coaches. "We just keep playing our own stuff and we know that defenses will make mistakes. In Mike D'Antoni's words, 'they're going to be wrong, but it's up to us to make sure we find out how they're wrong,'" he said.
Using the same core actions and allowing the details and reactions from the players to beat the defense also had its advantages for Bonn and Iisalo when it came to adding Javontae Hawkins back into the mix in the middle of the season.
Systems like this can often take players a while to adapt but Hawkins came back to the team from Limoges and put up 20 points and 5 assists in his first game back.
In this clip, we see the same Iverson entry again and this time Hawkins does enter the ball to Herrera on the wing. Watch Hawkins as the ball goes into the post, notice how early he knows where the defense will be rotating and is calling for the ball before the first pass and then the extra pass finally makes its way to him.
This recruiting style of using returning players to keep the engine running is something we have seen for years from Txus Vidorreta at Tenerife, another team renowned, even notorious for its almost obsessively detailed system on offense (and defense).
Although almost certainly a coincidence that Bonn and Tenerife are the first two teams qualified to the Quarter-Finals - especially when you consider how different the style of basketball is between them - what isn't coincidental is that they are undoubtedly two of the best-coached teams in the league this season.
After drawing AEK and Pinar Karsiyaka in their Regular Season group, very few would have predicted that Bonn was the team that would finish top of the group. Their only loss in the group being at home against UNAHOTELS Reggio Emilia was maybe even more unpredictable.
However, the fact that they are yet to lose a game in the Round of 16 has felt almost entirely predictable. This team is absolutely rolling. It's no surprise at all that they sit third in the BCL when it comes to Net Rating (+12.9 per 100 possessions), with only the ACB giants of Tenerife and Unicaja above them.
In fact, at this stage of the season, all three would now be firm favorites for most people when it comes to predicting who is likely to make the Final Four in May. That alone is a testament to how well they are playing.
There is, however, a steep path yet to climb for Bonn to reach that mountaintop, a fact that no doubt Tuomas Iisalo will be fully aware of. Up next is a huge game against BAXI Manresa at home.
A game that could secure them the top spot in the group and home advantage in the Quarter-Finals. Now is clearly not the time to get distracted by dream outcomes but if the season so far is anything to go by, distracted isn't something that this Bonn squad does.
No, what they are much more likely to do is keep their effort and daily focus on the details, and trust where the journey takes them.